Sleep was good last night; it always is when Tom is home. I know that at sometime between 6:30 and 7:00 am he will be there squirming and wriggling before leaping still half asleep on top of me demanding ‘big cuddles’. ‘Big cuddles, big love, big snuggles daddy’; this really is special time, hidden away from the outside world and all its problems we truly connect and I know that this at least will never be lost. I hold him tight and he dozes again, twitching into that slumberland between dreams and reality, not for long, but enough time for me to linger a while in the joy of this moment, this now that I wish would last forever. Will he remember this? Will he ever recall the times that I have held him so tightly for fear that he might slip away from me? It sometimes disturbs me to think that he will not, and yet there is perhaps a place deep within us all that does hold on, does record and play back the extremes of happiness and pain that they form a platform for our emotional intelligence, instinctively informing us of those that have cared and loved and would protect us from all evil. Perhaps we do know. Perhaps Tom will know.
He wakes again, this time a little more startled and confused it seems as to how he got here? He engages me with a smile, a kiss and another cuddle and then, his eyes clearing of the mist, launches into a recital of the twenty most important words in his life. I have no idea how or why he does this nor how words enter or exit this literary hit parade but it seems to work for Tom who triumphantly flings his arms around my neck and squeezes out my appreciation. In truth I have heard many of them before but his enthusiasm is so infectious that I am often beguiled into thinking that he has only just discovered them. I turn on the television and we watch twenty minutes of ‘Fimbles’ and ‘Balamoray’ Tom straddled jockey – like across my chest cheerfully bouncing all the breath out of me each time he recognises any of the characters on screen. We sing, play and laugh together, as it was meant to be. I stroke the back of his hair; his golden hair trestled into careless curls and ruffled back slightly by his night of slumber. Golden…yes golden; some might say ‘strawberry blonde’, some might taunt ‘ginger’, still others may conject that my ‘golden’ puts me in denial of ginger, but it is truly golden. Golden hair on my golden boy.
After the familiar routines of ‘hello toes’ as his night suit is peeled off, the beautiful tactility with which his eczema cream is applied to his tiny body and the comical struggle that these two boys endure in choosing and assembling today’s clothing, we eventually make our way downstairs for breakfast. Toast, mini shreddies, nappy changed and bag packed we are soon flying out of the back door and bundling ourselves into ‘daddy’s car’ for a day out to Paignton Zoo. Within ten minutes Tom is fast asleep. I look at him in the rear view mirror and smile as I always smile when I see my little man so happy and contented. I think about what things might be in his dreams; planes, trains and automobiles, bright yellow diggers and tractors; bicycles that fly and strange talking animals. I struggle to recall what wonders of the mind were in my childhood dreams but hope that they were as Toms’ now safe and sound. I ponder still further and wish that my own troubled sleep might sometimes deliver me to that same magical place where reality need not be faced and all is right in the world.
We arrive at the elaborate Victorian arch of the zoo gates in good time and I am for a brief moment transported back to school trips in the Lake District, a little boy, confident, scruffy perhaps in his charcoal grey shorts and long socks slumped at the ankle, but so filled with fun and excitement. This was a time of innocence, some might say ignorance, but for him each day held another miracle. A time when we knew comparatively little of the animal kingdom; a time before the internet and television with its amazing camera technology removed the mystery and perhaps a little of the magic; a time when zoos were in the top league for family entertainment, now sadly relegated and passed over for the adrenaline thrills of sprawling theme parks. We park and the rain that has accompanied us all morning is still falling, but it doesn’t matter, nothing else matters when I am with Tom. I wake him and after a slightly crazed hug he makes an instinctive grab for his ‘cars’ which he has somehow managed to balance on his knees throughout. Into the buggy and through the turnstiles, wrapped like a precious piece of cargo encased behind a protective see through bubble, he still is not fully awake or entirely sure what this particular adventure is all about, but there is excitement in his eyes just the same. ‘Big bird…big bird!’ he cries wide eyed and transfixed by his first sight of flamingos, resplendent in their unique pinkness, long awkward necks uncomfortably supporting alien head and beak. Toms’ legs are kicking wildly, unable to contain his wonder and delight, laughing with pure joy as we pass through a succession of carefully recreated habitats each with their indigenous creatures. Dry and dusty deserts complete with rock pool oases where plants can gain a foothold and travellers can replenish their essential supplies of water; rainforests with their continuous canopy of hot and humid evergreen that hides so many secrets and open savannah grasslands with umbrella trees scattered as shelter from the midday sun.
After an hour or so I sense that we are both feeling a little tired and hungry. I notice a sign a little way off painted in an eye catching array of rainbow colours, ‘JUNGLE FUN – indoor play area’ and quickly decide that this might be a good place to take a break and perhaps eat some of the food that I have packed for Tom. Once inside I am slightly taken aback but pleasantly surprised to find a completely ramshackle but nevertheless user friendly area complete with what appears to be a voluntary run ‘Jam and Jerusalem’ café straight out of the WI garden parties of fifty years ago. At either end of this fascinating fundrome are two action packed and pleasure filled playgrounds with slides, rope ladders, poles to climb, brightly coloured padded shapes of every size, and pits filled with balls, thousands of those little plastic balls that children love to dive into, wade or swim through and throw here there and everywhere. Well for Tom, who has unsurprisingly gained a new burst of life this is all too much and he is already freeing himself Houdini like from the shackles of his buggy, anxious not to miss out on a single moment of this! He is off before I can stop him and why would I? He loves it here, barely able to contain his excitement, running this way and that with no one clear objective, and I love him loving it. He starts to climb, at last focused with a clear objective; a courageous assault on the North Face of a suitably padded slide that will deliver him victorious to the summit of his own little Everest….before launching himself down the other side and splashing dramatically into the sea of balls at the bottom. I wait, slightly anxious before he re-emerges head first with a triumphant smile, proud as I am proud at this great feat of daring and I am tied in, held high by his love, by this moment that is perhaps only achieved with your own child. It’s not that we are unable to delight in the achievements of other children, they each have their own moments of magic, but with Tom I feel it, experience each and every second of laughter, feel his joy, feel his pain and my heart rises and falls with his. Exhausted at last after several successful visits to the summit and back by a whole variety of pioneering routes, we settle down at a little wooden table and eat a carefully constructed lunch of emmental cheese, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, grapes ( halved so as not to choke little mouths), cherries and rice cakes. Feeling a little peckish myself I buy a sandwich from the café in which Tom shows more than a passing interest and we as always end up sharing. I sit back and watch him, smiling and happy, and I think to myself ‘how lucky I am to be right here, right now’.
After the thrills of Jungle Fun, the acrobatics within the Ape House, lions, tigers, elephants and giraffes are embraced slightly less enthusiastically than I had initially anticipated. But Tom has I notice fallen quiet and is beginning to show the signs that I read so instinctively now, of being tired. I want this day, this time, this moment to last, but my son comes first in everything and his eyes already closing, we make our way to the exit. As we approach the car he stirs slightly and in a daze joins me in a chorus of farewells;
‘Bye bye gorilla, bye bye lions, bye bye elephant’ and a surprise ‘bye bye cheetah’ from Tom.
He sleeps for most of the journey home an imagination now coloured with a wealth of new landscapes and strange creatures with which to fill it. I am momentarily startled by my mobile phone reverberating with the tone that indicates a text message is being received, a tone that makes my heart sink into my stomach.
‘ON MY WAY’
Those three little words, ‘on my way’, in themselves so innocent and yet to me they are the messengers of doom that have come to take away my son and I must prepare for another goodbye. When it arrives I am as always hopelessly lost; it is as painful as it has ever been, as I believe it will always be, as painful as losing the most precious thing in your life must be. We hug. We squeeze. We press our faces tightly in to one another and my soul is bared to the world that would keep us apart. He whispers ‘bye bye daddy’ and I am caged with the animals that we have both so recently left behind. A tearful kiss blown through the car window, a wave and he is gone.
I love you Tom.